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Building Bridges

Interviews with faculty co-teaching interdisciplinary courses

Art, Chemistry, and Conservation
Co-taught by:
•    Patricia Reilly, associate professor of art history
•    Ginger Heck, chemistry senior lecturer


Heck: I like the idea of showing students that there are connections between seemingly disparate disciplines such as art and science. I hope that this course appeals to both the artists and the scientists in our student body and that it helps each to appreciate the different perspectives of the other’s discipline. I am also looking forward to working with my colleague, Patricia, in exploring the connections between art and science.

Reilly: I am expanding the level of interdisciplinary exchanges to include Tristan Smith from physics and Logan Grider from studio art. They’ll be coming into the lab to work with students on the physics and manufacture of colors. We will also be traveling to museums to work with professionals in the field of painting conservation.

Heck: I participated in a chemistry and art workshop funded by the National Science Foundation a number of years ago, designed to inspire and equip chemistry faculty to teach a course applying chemical concepts to the study and practice of art.

It was through this workshop that I developed an appreciation for connections between the disciplines and an interest in learning more about art.

I went on to enroll in several art courses here at Swarthmore and I discussed the possibility of developing such a course with the professors of these courses. It took some time, but I am excited at finally being able to offer the course!


The Classical in Art and Literature
Co-taught by:
•    Patricia Reilly, associate professor of art history
•    Grace Ledbetter, associate professor and chair of classics and associate professor of philosophy


Reilly: Co-teaching is a boost; it’s like a shot of adrenaline. All of a sudden you have at your disposal another scholar’s expertise and unique critical sensibilities; you have a new kind of audience for your teaching and a new range of possible directions for your own intellectual development. The students love watching two professors talk through a question, especially one that they had not previously explored. They have the opportunity to see scholarly discourse in action.

As a result of teaching The Classical in Art and Literature, together Grace and I have expanded our interests and seen new possibilities for our future scholarship. Our students were able to benefit from the combination of our backgrounds, and they were able to produce sophisticated final papers that reached beyond the limits of a single discipline. 


A Transnational Study of Graphic Fictions
Co-taught by:
•    William Gardner, associate professor and section head of Japanese
•    Alexandra Gueydan-Turek, associate professor of French and Francophone studies


Gueydan-Turek: The course has been a long time in planning; we’ve been thinking of co-teaching since about four years ago when I first started doing research on locally published Algerian manga (Japanese-style comics). At that time, Will provided me with a trove of relevant secondary sources and became the first reader (and unofficial reviewer) of my scholarly articles on the topic.

Gardner: For my part, I have taught courses on Japanese media studies which include anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comics), but I had never taught a course specifically on manga or graphic fiction. Nevertheless, these materials play a huge role in contemporary Japanese culture so they had always been on my radar as far as teaching contemporary culture was concerned.

I was very excited by the chance to co-teach a course on graphic fiction with Alexandra, who is an expert on this topic and has taught courses on Bande Dessinée (Franco-Belgian comics) before. Additionally, it was a chance to think outside the box of “national languages” or “national literatures and cultures” which have been the framework for much of the teaching in our disciplines, and to examine the transnational flows of creative influence and consumption.

Gueydan-Turek: Beyond my personal and scholarly affinities with Will, the interdisciplinary aspect of the class was quite attractive to me.

Indeed, it is essential to contemporary teaching and research; it is always already present in the work we study, especially in my field of specialty which encompasses cultural productions from the Arab world in the French language, and has been focusing of late on the interconnections between graphic works from North Africa, Europe, and Asia. Nevertheless, due to the structure of knowledge production in academia, interdisciplinary aspects get obscured as we continue to function by academic silos.

As such, the fact that our institution allows and encourages co-teaching not only benefits our students but is professionally enriching to us as well. It appears all the more important that Swarthmore seems to be engaged in this type of project for the long run; for instance, I was privileged to participate in the 2016 Aydelotte Seminar on collaborations, where we engaged with colleagues outside of our field of expertise on this very topic.

Gardner: Another aspect of this collaboration that has been meaningful to us both is the chance to observe and interact with another professor and to exchange different pedagogical ideas. For example, Alexandra had previously developed course protocols for using the Notability software with iPads so that students could write notes directly on PDF files of graphic works, and then present these notes to their classmates through AppleTV classroom projection. We found that this really helped the students articulate and share their thoughts about specific formal and thematic issues in the graphic novels we were studying. Similarly, I had previously worked with video essays as a final project for a media studies class, and we incorporated this aspect into the class as well.

Gueydan-Turek: I think Will is selling himself short here, as he was the driving force behind the diversity of formats that we offered our students to adopt for their final project. Not only did he guide the class in a methodological manner when it came to the visual essay, but he offered the same amount of detailed structure for students interested in producing an original work or a scanlation (a fan-based translation of a graphic work) as a final project.

In fact, from a pedagogical standpoint, our students benefited tremendously from our co-teaching: not only were they exposed to a wider variety of pedagogical tools and approaches, but they also had daily access to two widely differing personalities through Will and I. While differing, out teaching styles also complemented each other: Will is very put-together as a teacher, he advances in a well-structured and meticulous fashion; I, on the other hand, am more a “creative chaos” kind of gal—although Will seems not to agree completely with this specific characterization!

What is most important here is that students could not get too comfortable in the classroom. We kept them on their toes and approached the class from different angles so they had to be well prepared and intellectually flexible. 

Gardner: Another fun part of the class for me was to listen to Alexandra’s lectures about Bande Dessinée and their history and cultural background. It is one thing to read about such works, but to be able to hear an expert synthesize the material from her own perspective in the classroom and interact with students is another thing entirely.

Gueydan-Turek: I wonder whether the students realized that we were learning alongside them. Indeed, the amount of sources that Will taught me and made me understand could have no equivalent outside of a classroom. I truly believe that this will have a tremendous impact in my future scholarship!

It is my understanding that at least half of our students were fans of some sort, and enrolled because they consumed particular types of commercial manga or comics. On the first day, we heard from them that they liked to read One Piece, Naruto, Watchmen, and for those who were acquainted with Bande dessinée, they often spoke of Tintin and Spirou. These works had little to do with those on our syllabus. I was extremely pleased, and quite surprised that by the end of the semester, students had broadened their interests, even beyond the particular works that were mandatory.

One student, for instance, who loves One Piece, was particularly enthusiastic about Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color, a French graphic novel focusing on the coming of age of a lesbian protagonist, which he probably would not have picked up in a bookstore himself.

Gardner: In addition, I was really impressed by the students’ final presentations, which, as Alex mentioned, included original works and scanlations as well as video essays. They were really passionate about their subject matter and managed to incorporate aspects of their interest and experiences beyond the framework of our class. For example, one student produced an original graphic work addressing the theme of obsessive compulsive disorder that she had been studying as a prospective psychology major. Several other students did visual essays based on interviews with cosplayers (people dressing and impersonating their favorite comic book characters) on campus as well as at a local comics convention, and framed these interviews with their own critical reflections in a very thoughtful way. 

Gueydan-Turek: In fact, one may say that the very interdisciplinary breadth that our collaboration brought to the class was then mirrored in the broad scope of inquiry that the students adopted to perform their own final research. To some extent, the interdisciplinary framework of the class encouraged their own work to become more innovative. Additionally, we both were enthusiastic about the fact that students with previous language background in Japanese and/or French were able to apply their skills through their scanlation projects, and share with the rest of the class the depth of linguistic and cultural knowledge that it takes to produce an effective translation. 

Gueydan-Turek and Gardner: We’d like to mention that there was a great amount of student interest in the class and we ended up taking in more students than we had originally envisioned as part of the course’s seminar format. The feedback from students was very positive and we are hoping to offer the course again in two years!


Intro to Environmental Studies
Co-taught by:
•    Betsy Bolton, professor of English literature and director of environmental studies
•    Christopher Graves, associate professor of chemistry


Bolton: I should start by saying that I had a great time teaching this course with Carr Everbach last year, too. With Carr, I was full of appreciation for his commitment to engaged scholarship as he largely ran the component of the course that connected students with issues of food justice in Chester—and I greatly enjoyed moments like his demonstration of the physics of “tipping points.” 

With Chris, I’ve been so impressed with the elegance and precision of his lectures and his enthusiasm for the material and the students.

After his first lecture, I was supposed to make a brief announcement about the next class, and I remember saying to the students, “I hope you appreciate just how fabulous that introduction to the science of climate change was. I’ve been paying attention to this issue for quite a few years now, and I learned some things this morning. We are all very fortunate to be learning from Chris.”

Chris was also the driving force behind our many field trips, in particular our field trip to the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant, which was a high point of the semester for many students.

It’s worth noting that it takes more time to teach with someone else than it does to teach alone. Chris and I met every week in the fall semester in order to prepare for the spring, and we spent a lot of time checking in with each other during the spring semester as well. But we had so much fun together!

For instance, we ended the semester with a series of “walking final exams.” We set four questions for the students to prepare and gave them five minutes to respond to each question (with some follow-up questions from us); Chris paced out a one-mile 20-minute course; and we walked that course in sun and drizzle, twenty-three times in just over a week.

Team-teaching meant that we each nudged the other to try something new—and we kept each other on our toes throughout the semester. 

Graves: Developing a course with another professor lets you see the way other people think through the process of class structure and evaluation, and since I was teaching with a humanities professor you can imagine that our processes were different.

Betsy is an amazing professor who has a real passion for the subject area. She has also done a lot of work in the area of pedagogy and course development, and co-teaching with her inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and try new techniques in class. I definitely learned new skills that I plan on implementing in other courses.

Bolton: For me, there is nothing that matters more than this at the moment. I’ll echo David Gelber ’63, H’17’s commencement speech: the future of these students is going to be much harder than the world he (and I) inherited. As I said to the students in the last class, I’ve been trying to find my point of leverage: what I can do most effectively to nudge our nation and our culture in a direction that offers genuine hope for future human thriving. I feel as if this Intro course is one critical point of leverage.

We tried out a new assignment this year: we asked students to work in groups on creating a Climate Adaptation Plan for a municipality that did not already have such a plan in place. There are ways we might revise the assignment to make it less overwhelming, but many of the groups did an absolutely stellar job, producing reports on a par with professional efforts from a much larger team.

In the process, the students discovered not only the effects climate change is already producing in different areas around the country, but also the kinds of information available through government sources and the kinds of adaptation strategies being creatively employed on a variety of levels. Through this assignment, we could see the students feeling their way into the reality of climate change; we could see them learning how to think and talk about climate change not as an abstraction or an ideology but as a whole set of concrete obstacles to human well-being and challenges to human ingenuity.

Graves: Teaching a group of students who are interested in learning about environmental science, policy, justice, etc and how to apply that knowledge to affect the lives of people in a positive way had a powerful effect on me. I think that the students came away from the course all learning a new way of thinking about environmental concerns, and it was wonderful to be able to be part of that learning. 

Bolton: I think the sensory wealth of literature often serves as an invitation to engage prospectively and imaginatively in sorting out moral quandaries, the implications of different choices, the residue of different histories. (Indeed, I understand from news reports—always to be taken with a grain of salt—that functional MRI’s are starting to demonstrate the way vivid language produces activity in the same parts of the brain that process the actual experiences the language is working to evoke). Literature lets us simulate experience, and literary criticism lets us analyze that simulation in order to learn as much as possible from the form and structure of the simulation and our responses to it. 

Still, I have to confess that we didn’t spend a lot of time on literature in this class--Environmental Studies is an interdisciplinary field, but it is also developing into a field (or inter-field) of its own, with its own background knowledge and skills. While one could offer an entire course on environmental literature (and we do offer several, including Race, Gender, Class, and Environment, Ecofeminisms, and Materials that Matter), in this introductory context, it seemed more important to address issues of climate justice and environmental justice in relation to very topical issues such as the Paris agreement and Standing Rock. (If I had another pass at this spring semester, I might try to pair literature with these political instances: I might include work by Joy Harjo or Linda Hogan or Leslie Marmion Silko along with excerpts from the Standing Rock syllabus; I might pair Amitav Ghosh and Aldo Leopold with our simulation of the UN climate negotiations; and so on.)

We did read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife as a near-future simulation of drastic water shortages in the southwest, particularly Phoenix, and I think many students enjoyed the novel and its simulation of the future.

Graves: My teaching requirements are split between the Chemistry & Biochemistry department and the Environmental Studies program. It makes a lot of sense for a chemist to be part of the ENVS program and to teach ENVS courses. An understanding of the underlying scientific concepts behind issues like climate change, herbicide and pesticide use and resistance, fertilizers development, etc is important to being able to effective communicate environmental issues and to provide solutions to these issues. In teaching ENVS001, it is important to have a contributor who can effectively discuss these scientific aspects.

Bolton: When it comes to what I hope students take away, I hope it’s:

Graves: The students in the class were amazing and there were so many moments where their abilities went well beyond my expectations. There were a wide range of student interests in the class and since Betsy and I have such different backgrounds/interests it really enabled the students to express their opinions and viewpoints. One of the things I will take away most from the class is that everyone brought something to the conversation and contributed to the topics, and at some point everyone was both a teacher and a student, Betsy and myself included. Team teaching requires a lot of work, but it is totally worth it! 


Water Policies, Water Issues: Shenzhen/Hong Kong/Taiwan and the U.S.
Co-taught by:
•    Haili Kong, professor and section head of Chinese
•    Carol Nackenoff, Richter Professor of Political Science


Nackenoff: Both Professor Kong and I put a bunch of films on the syllabus—we both enjoy working with film, although many of the ones I knew and chose were documentaries rather than feature films. The division of labor in the spring semester course is that I prepare most of the syllabus and lead the bulk of the discussions. (A few weeks are specially devoted to humanities, and Professor Kong did this; students also make presentations, and they were quite good!)

Professor Kong does most of the arranging and getting the lectures, field trips together, details of travel, accommodation, meeting with alums, etc. This was similar to the model in 2014 when I worked with Professor Lala Zuo, now at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

As an Americanist, I am stretching to find and teach good materials about water issues and water policies in China. I found two great new books this year that I put on the syllabus—David Pietz’s The Yellow River and Howard Ball’s The Water Kingdom—but I was sometimes working beyond my comfort zone, and was learning alongside the students. Many of the students have studied Chinese or are heritage speakers—I’d estimate at least 65 to 70 percent of them—and I have a vocabulary of only a couple hundred words. I’ve been to China four times and this summer will be the fifth, but I am taking (and enjoying) the crash survival mandarin class again this year. (We ask all students who are not fluent to take either the introductory or advanced preparation course after we select them for the trip.)

Having led a freshwater and environmental justice capstone seminar for environmental studies, and having taught both the intro to environmental studies and an upper-level political science course on environmental politics and policy, there are many things that flow naturally from those experiences.